Cuban-born Isabel E. Villar of White Plains, the founder and executive director of El Centro Hispano since 1974 and a founder of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, received top honors at the 30th Annual Senior Citizens Hall of Fame Awards Luncheon on Dec. 3.
"The Senior Citizens Hall of Fame has been a tradition in Westchester for three decades," said County Executive Robert P. Astorino. "Our honorees are extraordinary. Individually and as a group, they strengthen our communities and are true role models for us all. Isabel Villar is a remarkable example of just such a person."
Villar is one of 51 Westchester residents age 60 and older from the "Class of 2012" who will be inducted at a festive luncheon in the hotel's Main Ballroom from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"I feel very special," Villar said about the recognition. "I never forgot my beginnings. To get such a prestigious award is wonderful. I never thought I'd be in that category. This can only happen in the United States of America."
Five of this year's honorees are 90 or older, including Kitty Geissler of Tarrytown, who recently turned 100.
The Senior Citizens Hall of Fame is sponsored by the Westchester Public/Private Partnership for Aging Services, the Westchester County Department of Senior Programs and Services (DSPS) and the Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation.
This year's event is co-sponsored by VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans, CenterLight Healthcare and a partnership from the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, which includes the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention and ElderServeHealth.
In addition, The Upper Class LLC, a Westchester-based family business that specializes in trips for seniors and boomers, is donating two day-trips to each of the six top honorees.
DSPS Commissioner Mae Carpenter said that the Senior Citizens Hall of Fame showcases how much seniors contribute to the quality of life in Westchester and inspire others to follow their lead.
"They show that age is never a deterrent to being a vital member of our society," she said. "In fact, it's an advantage because of the life experiences they bring with them. It's also terrific that they exemplify the neighbors-helping-neighbors approach of our signature Livable Communities Initiative."
The Senior Citizens Senior Hall of Fame was started by former Westchester County Executive Andrew P. O'Rourke who led the county from 1983 to 1997. Its purpose is to honor those who have contributed their energies and talents as professionals and volunteers to make significant and enduring contributions to enhance the quality of life countywide or in their home communities.
Seniors are nominated to the Hall of Fame by members of the community and the winners are selected by a screening committee composed of past Hall of Fame honorees, members of the Senior and Older American Advisory Councils and the DSPS staff. The names of the honorees are engraved on plaques that are permanently displayed at the DSPS office in Mount Vernon.
Over the past three decades, more t han 900 seniors have been inducted.
Isabel Villar came to the United States with her family in 1966 as a young adult who spoke no English. She immediately enrolled in White Plains High School but at that time there were no English as a Second Language classes so Ms. Villar said it was "sink or swim." She swam, indeed, and when such ESL classes began the following year she enrolled on the advanced level.
El Centro Hispano is a community organization that targets the Hispanic population. Just some of the programs if offers are helping young people to earn college scholarships, its bilingual Boy and Girl Scout troops and its new, state-of-the-art Technology Center, which offers computer classes for children, adults and seniors.
Villar received a scholarship to Manhattanville College where she earned a bachelor's degree in political science/Latin American Studies. She also has advanced degrees, including ones in administration and guidance from New York University, Iona College and Long Island University.
In 1988 she became a guidance counselor at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Conn., and in 1999 she founded the Brien McMahon High School Hispanic Alumni Association with the mission of having Hispanic alumni serve as role models and mentors for the Hispanic students. The association has awarded $1,000 a year in scholarships since it began.
Villar's resume has three, doubled-spaced pages that list the more than 44 affiliations she has had over the years and the awards she has won during her long career. Awards include ones from the Westchester Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Westchester Community Opportunity Program and the Westchester County Human Rights Commission. She also received the Americanism Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She says one of her proudest achievements was being selected as one of the first inductees into the White Plains High School Hall of Fame.